The Famine and Swinford Workhouse

Swinford, Co. Mayo in the West of Ireland

The remains and site of the Swinford Union Workhouse should be of interest to visitors to the area. The front portion of the workhouse is now a hospital and is typical of all workhouses built at the time.

One of the best preserved mass Famine Graves can be seen at the back of Swinford Hospital, where 564 inmates were buried 'without coffin, without sermon, without anything which denotes respect for the dead', as Michael Davitt recalled in his book Defence of the Land League. The site of the Famine Grave is marked by a simple plaque bearing the inscription: Erected by the people of Swinford to the memory of 564 famine victims buried in this place. May they rest in peace.

The Poor Law Act of 1838 was an act 'for the more efficient relief of the Destitute Poor in Ireland'. The principle of this act was that local property owners should alleviate local poverty. The country was divided into 130 Poor Law Unions, five of which were in Mayo. The Unions were funded by a system of levies known as rates. Under this system each property was given a rateable valuation. The valuations were determined in a scheme supervised by Sir Richard Griffith. The Griffith Valuations form the basis for the system of rates that exist up to the present.

Swinford Union was established on April 2nd, 1840. and had a Board of Guardians numbering 28 members. A six-acre site was obtained from Sir William Brabazon for the erection of a workhouse. The contract was signed on the October 16th, 1840 and the building was completed in February 1842. It had accommodation for 420 adults and 280 children. Collecting the rates proved to be difficult and this delayed's opening .It was officially opened on 26th March 1846 and the first inmates were admitted on 14th April 1846.

By the end of 1846 there was overcrowding in the workhouse with as many as 200 people per day seeking admission. The Board of Guardians responded by cancelling further admissions. Hundreds of men women and children roamed the streets begging for food, while others were forced to emigrate.

Influence on Michael Davitt

Swinford Workhouse was recalled by Michael Davitt in a speech before The Times- Parnell Commission in London in October 1889. He stated that as a child he travelled to the workhouse in Swinford with his family, but they were refused admission as his mother refused to accept some of the conditions imposed in those 'abodes of misery and degradation'.

He also remembered hearing from his mother how poor people from between Straide, his birthplace, and Swinford had died of starvation and had been buried in a mass grave. So vivid an impression did these events make on his mind that on a visit to Swinford some 25 years afterwards he went to the burial place without asking anyone for directions.

Conditions inside the workhouse were inhuman and degrading, discipline was strict and inmates were compelled to work without compensation. Death and fever were commonplace within the institution.

In 1847 Government policy began to change, the Soup Kitchen Act phased out institutional relief and the provision of Soup was introduced. Sir William Brabazon bought two houses for the establishment of soup kitchens. Relieving officers were appointed for the provision of aid to the able bodied. That same year fever sheds and temporary wards were erected giving accommodation for an extra 260 people. Plans were prepared by G. Wilkinson for a fever hospital.

In the years after the famine the numbers of inmates dropped and the workhouses became more 'the refuge of the sick, aged, infirm, illegitimate children and their mothers than the able bodied poor'. The famine showed the folly of over dependence on the potato and ushered in an era of high emigration.

In 1926 the remaining inmates were transferred to Castlebar where Sr. M. Berchmans took charge of them in The County Home. The fever hospital remained in use, dreaded by patients, visitors and staff. In the mid 1930's some of the workhouse and infirmary buildings were demolished. What remains today is what was the fever hospital (originally the administration building of the Union.) This part of the building has retained it's original features to the present day and is located on the Dublin road, exiting out of Swinford.



By Brian Hoban